Historic Brewster Projects clear hurdle for $6.5 million demolition project on prime real estate

BrewsterThe city of Detroit cleared the final hurdle to begin demolishing the storied, crumbling Brewster projects that loom like towering gravestones over I-75 near downtown.

“Following a public comment period, HUD has released funds to the Detroit Housing Commission,” Mayor Dave Bing’s spokesman Anthony Neely told us. “An architectural and engineering firm has been engaged and is in the process of developing a plan. We expect to have a demolition plan in place in the coming weeks.”

The project is one of the mayor’s most ambitious yet. The elimination of blight has been a centerpiece of his first term. He has pledged to demolish 10,000 houses and played a key role in developing a nonprofit to clear out abandoned areas.

Unlike some demolition projects, the Brewster plan has met minimal resistance, partly because the buildings have fallen into disrepair since becoming vacant in 2008.

Brewster has a rich, tragic history. Built in the 1930s, the red-brick buildings are the first publicly funded housing projects for black people.

At first, the working poor who were lucky enough to get a Brewster apartment were thrilled because they could proudly raise a family in a clean, safe environment. At the time, the city was beginning to clear out over-populated slums, known as Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, where African Americans were confined to substandard living.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who was an outspoken advocate of racial equality, was at the groundbreaking and said the new apartments represented a grand achievement for human rights.

At any given time, between 8,000 and 10,000 residents lived at the Brewster projects.

But drugs and crime, especially during the 1980s, began to deteriorate the mini-city of red bricks, leading to a drawn-out exodus that left the housing units vacant in 2008.

Since then, the buildings have crumbled. Thieves have gutted everything of value, tearing apart floors, ceilings and walls for metal. The row houses often catch fire, sometimes at the hands of homeless people trying to stay warm in the winter.

The adjacent recreation center where Joe Louis learned how to box is falling apart. Tennis and basketball courts are cracked, with long grass poking out of the concrete.

Bing said there are no plans yet to demolish the large, decaying rec center.

The city continues to entertain offers to buy the 18-acre site.

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Steve Neavling, who lives on the city’s east side, is an investigative journalist, a freelance reporter for Reuters and former city hall reporter for the Detroit Free Press. Neavling explores corruption, Detroit’s unsung heroes and the underbelly of an oft-misunderstood city.

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Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.